Our baby's race against the clot

Albert's desperate state called for desperate measures...

Published by: Katie Masters and Emma Pietras
Published on: 11 October 2012

Gazing down at my podgy newborn on his playmat, I felt an overwhelming rush of love.
We'd welcomed Albert into the world just days before, and me and my hubby Adam couldn't be happier. He was the perfect addition to our family.
Our eldest, Charlie, 16, was in his room and I could hear Adam downstairs, playing with George, 14, and Emily, 12. Six-year-old Fred was singing along to The Lion King.
‘It was my turn!' I heard George snap, suddenly. ‘But you cheated...' Emily argued. ‘Be quiet,' Adam shushed. ‘You'll wake your brother up.'
I chuckled. I hadn't even put Albert to bed yet. I was living in a little bubble of happiness, and could have sat there staring at him for hours.
‘Has my little soldier fallen asleep already?' I cooed, tickling Albert's chubby cheeks. Only then my smile slowly faded.
His chest wasn't rising...
‘Albert!' I screamed, scooping him up in my arms. He wasn't breathing. Heart racing, I rushed downstairs.
‘Get the car keys,' I yelled to Adam. ‘Albert's not breathing!'
‘What? How?' he panicked.
‘I don't know,' I said, bursting into tears. We called an ambulance and asked Adam's parents to come and look after the kids. Soon, we were pacing the floor while medics tried to stabilise our boy.
‘What happened?' Adam kept asking, head in his hands.
‘I don't know,' I sobbed. ‘One moment he was fine and then...'
Finally, a doctor came to see us. ‘Albert has hypoplastic left heart syndrome,' he said. ‘It's a rare defect which means the left side of his heart hasn't developed properly. His only chance of survival is risky open heart surgery.'
‘Oh my god,' I gasped, tears filling my eyes. My boy was just days old, yet they were talking about slicing him open.
I just wanted it over as soon as possible! But we'd have to wait a whole three days before they could operate. The longest three days of my life.
Staring down at Albert on the life support machine, I felt so utterly helpless. ‘I'm sorry,' I kept saying. I felt like somehow it was all my fault.
Then, finally, it was the morning of the op. We had a few precious minutes with Albert before. ‘We love you so much,' I wept.
For the next six nail-biting hours, I paced the corridors so much, I must've worn the floor away. Then, finally, the surgeon was walking towards us...
‘Is he okay?' I'd begged. ‘Yes, but you need to take each day as it comes,' he explained. ‘It's likely he'll need more ops.'
I didn't care about any of that at the time, I was just happy to have our little one back home where he belonged.
Albert soon blossomed. At nine months, he needed follow-up surgery to improve his circulation, but he got through that fine. He was a fighter.
We were told Albert wouldn't have as much energy as other children, but he worked hard. Soon, he was up and about, tottering after the other kids.
One day, Charlie tried balancing him on his scooter.But the kids knew when Albert needed to stop. So they'd sit down and do a Peppa Pig jigsaw while Albert rested.
Watching them play together, I realised how far Albert had come, and it was all thanks to the hospital.
‘We should raise some money for them,' Adam said.
So, we organised a Spanish-themed night for charity. Albert, now two, looked so cute in his black bull costume.
But the following morning, I woke to find an anxious George staring down at me with Albert in his arms. ‘You okay, darling?' I asked. Albert didn't answer. He felt clammy and his face was grey.
He was reaching under his armpit, too, as though he was trying to hold his heart.
Panic shot through me as I called an ambulance to take us to Glenfield Hospital in Leicester. It was all such a blur.
‘He's had a heart attack,' the consultant explained as Albert lay on a bed, limp.
‘A what?!' I spluttered. ‘He's two!' It's not like he's an old man!
‘They're incredibly rare in children,' the consultant agreed. ‘I've never seen one before.'
I put my head in my hands.
‘I'm so sorry,' he said. ‘The left side of his heart is the only thing keeping him alive.' The tiny, barely-formed left part of his heart. I felt sick with fear. ‘We need to operate,' the consultant added. ‘But he's not well enough yet.'
I stared down at Albert, furiously blinking away tears. The doctors spent hours monitoring him, anxiously waiting to see if he would stabilise enough.
‘Come on, baby,' I urged. ‘Get better for Mummy.'
I held Albert's hand tight in mine, as if I could give him my strength. Finally, two days on, he was well enough.
‘There's a 50 per cent chance he won't make it,' the doctor warned us. ‘But without surgery, he has no chance.'
I nodded, numb. There was no other option. Adam held me and we just sat together in silence, waiting... Finally, a surgeon came out to find us.
‘Albert has a blood clot on his heart,' he said. ‘Oh, god,' I gasped, as they handed us more papers to sign because the operation was so risky.
I didn't think things could get any worse. I remembered the day Albert was born. He looked so perfect and healthy. I couldn't lose him, I just couldn't...
‘Please, come on,' I whispered under my breath, every part of my body willing Albert to live.
Minutes ticked past and then I heard a buzzing noise... the door swung open and the surgeon came in.
‘We've got it,' he beamed, happily. ‘Albert's okay! He's in recovery.'
Relief rushed through me. I could see fresh tears pouring down Adam's face and the surgeon was delighted. But now more medics were swarming into the room, congratulating him.
‘This is groundbreaking,' one doctor said. ‘It's totally going to transform treatment for children.'
Adam and I gawped at them, so confused. Then I realised the surgeon was holding something in his hands - a plastic container with the bloody clot in. It was at least half an inch long.
I couldn't believe my eyes!
‘I used a technique we've only ever used on adults,' he explained. ‘A mini-vacuum sucked the clot out of Albert's heart. It's the first time we've ever done it on a child!'
For a second, I thought I must have misheard him. Adam looked across at me as if he was thinking exactly the same thing.
‘He hoovered my son's heart?' I laughed, almost hysterical with relief.
They nodded. It had been a world first. I was shocked.
As soon as they could, the nurses ushered us into the recovery room. Me and Adam stared down at our little miracle boy.
‘Albert has made medical history,' I gasped. ‘And he's survived, too.'
Our little fighter had beaten all the odds. I felt like crying and laughing and hugging him, all
at the same time.
Ten days later, Albert was discharged and could come home with us, where he belonged.
‘Your heart just needed a little spring clean,' I whispered to him.
Now, three months on, we still don't really know what the future holds but we're just glad our baby boy is here with us.
The right side of Albert's heart has been weakened by the heart attack. But our hope is that some of the muscle will recover and keep him going until he's old enough to have a transplant.
We also know that if anyone can do it, Albert can... he's not just a survivor, he's our little medical miracle!

• Dr Albert Alahmar, consultant adult interventional cardiologist at Glenfield Hospital, said:
‘As far as I'm concerned, this has never been done on a child as heart attacks in children
are incredibly rare. It really is absolutely remarkable.'

Annita Tansey, 37, Burbage, Leicestershire